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Good Sore vs. Bad Sore: How to Tell the Difference

woman relieving neck pain

There is a lot of truth to the phrase, “No pain, no gain.” Feeling a little bit of soreness after exercising is normal and, believe it or not, usually a sign that your muscles are getting stronger. But not every post-workout ache is positive. Here’s how to compare good sore vs. bad sore, and how you can expect to recover from both.

What ‘Good Sore’ Feels Like

When you exercise, the physical stress placed on your body causes inflammation and tiny muscle tissue tears that lead to a type of soreness called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

This creates a blunt discomfort or burning sensation that affects both sides of your body equally, like both quadriceps after a hard run or both biceps after a session of arm curls. DOMS usually develops within a couple of days after being active and is completely normal. In fact, as the tiny tears heal, your muscles grow back even stronger.

DOMS affects new exercisers and seasoned athletes alike. And fortunately, there are steps you can take to soothe your discomfort. Cooling down at the end of your workout, for instance, can get rid of the soreness-causing lactic acid that builds up in your muscles during exercise. Applying ice to these areas can help minimize swelling, as well.

Lastly, consider working different muscle groups next time so you can give your tired muscles a rest. Although DOMS might leave you feeling sluggish, you should still be able to exercise comfortably the next day, even if you need to take it easy.

What ‘Bad Sore’ Feels Like

Overly strenuous workouts can stress your muscles too much, leading to more intense inflammation coupled with tenderness, sharp pain and even swelling that’s visible with the naked eye.

Whereas “good” soreness goes away in a day or two — and might feel better with mild exercise, like walking or swimming — the same physical activity often makes “bad” soreness feel worse. And unlike “good” soreness, which typically affects both the left and right muscle, “bad” soreness tends to be unilateral, meaning it only affects one side of the body. This can indicate a specific injury, according to Shape, like a sprained ankle or shoulder.

Cases of severe soreness can even be managed with rest, ice and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen. However, soreness that doesn’t go away or gets worse over time could be a sign of a more serious injury, like a torn ligament or a stress fracture. Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests calling your doctor if

  • Your pain doesn’t go away with rest.
  • Your pain is constant or gets worse instead of better.
  • Your pain starts affecting everyday activities like walking or climbing steps.
  • You need increasing amounts of medication to relieve your pain.
  • Your pain wakes you up at night.
  • You develop numbness, tingling or loss of motion.

Remember, even if your soreness is mild, you shouldn’t ignore it. By taking time to treat even minor aches and pains, you can identify good sore vs. bad sore right when you get out of bed, bounce back from exercise faster and tackle your next workout sooner.

Consult your doctor before beginning any diet or exercise program.

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